Modern transport businesses have a twin challenge to address: invest in physical infrastructure to support quality and capacity, at the same time as investing in digital infrastructure to improve passenger experience.

It’s not an easy balance to strike. But transformation is a priority. Passenger expectations are rising, while the additional revenue opportunities created by digital services are hard to ignore. I recently joined Secretary for Transport Chris Grayling at a roundtable at leading London-based think tank Reform to address these issues, and to discuss the opportunity for the UK to lead the rest of the world in the transformation of the sector.

Here are my five key takeaways from the discussion.

1.     Tackling technology challenges

The event’s attendees, some of the most influential individuals from across UK transport, technology and the public sector, offered an array of views relating to the technologies and challenges specific to their roles and responsibilities.

For rail, there was consensus that smart ticketing could be one of the next big steps in both improving passenger experience, and driving new revenue opportunities. By rolling out fully digitised tickets, and eliminating the use of paper tickets, passengers would be able to upgrade class or extend journeys on the go.

Of course, ubiquitous wireless coverage will be required across the entire network to facilitate this – no easy feat given the unique features that UK rail presents. These include an abundance of tunnels and deep cuttings that block transmissions from reaching tracks, not to mention the ‘Faraday cage‘ effect created by the design of many train carriages.

Many of the event’s attendees agreed that there are two key areas that will help here. The first involved finding more efficient, mutually beneficial ways for various stakeholders to collaborate. The second focused on the issue of spectrum – with 5G technology on the horizon, this will become increasingly important as there is a need to achieve higher spectrum efficiency compared to 4G.

2.     Minding the skills gap

Around the table, there was agreement that, like many industries, the transport sector needs to continue developing digital skills to take full advantage of the benefits digitisation can deliver. Connectivity for underground rail, for example, demands specialist skills, with the coax cable and fibre used for high-speed wireless services requiring careful handling and precision fitting to avoid performance degradation. But it’s not just engineers on the ground expanding their skillset. IT staff are also building their coding abilities to support the next generation of transport apps. Even senior management is working on their tech competencies to ensure digitisation is a success.

While the transport sector has traditionally been the preserve of larger organisations, an interesting point was raised about the growing role of start-ups. Agile and typically fluent in the language of technology, these smaller organisations are often at the heart of driving innovation. As such, several attendees agreed that it was important to collaborate with and support start-ups to stay at the forefront of the latest developments.

3.     Driving effective data handling

Solving the skills gap has the potential to solve another challenge facing the transport industry – how best to collect, share and extract insights from data. The digitisation of the sector will result in an exponential increase in the volume of data generated by systems and attendees agreed that we have to be prepared to make the most of it.

Again, high-speed wireless connectivity will be crucial here, as will cross-sector collaboration. TfL’s example in its use of passenger data will help as the national network is digitised, but attendees also highlighted that rail can also learn a lot from the work that automated vehicles car companies have been doing.

Moreover, predictive analytics is now part of the daily running of businesses across a wide variety of industries. It’s important that we leverage their knowledge when developing best practice for data handling in transport.

4.     Securing passenger safety

A number of attendees raised a topic that really illustrates the meaningful ways which technology can improve passenger experiences – safety.

I was able to share a good example from BAI’s experience working with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) in Canada. Enabled by the wireless network we installed in the Toronto subway system, TTC was able to launch SafeTTC, a free mobile app that offers users the ability to report numerous non-emergency activities such as harassment, safety concerns and suspicious activities.

In these instances, an alert is issued so that a member of staff or the relevant authorities are waiting at the next station, knowing the specific nature of the problem, as well as the exact location in the train where it is occurring.

Further, there were suggestions from attendees that analytics could be used to identify patterns regarding where safety issues are occurring, possible reasons why this might be, and even changes that might best address them.

5.     Funding the future

The final topic from the session I want to highlight is also I believe one of the most important – how does the industry fund these upgrades? The Government’s role was discussed, however there was also acknowledgement that the industry would need to innovate to solve the problem of investment.

Ultimately, the answer is to ensure that we are not just adopting technology for technology’s sake – new services must be passenger focused and they need to drive revenue, both directly and indirectly. For the former, this could be via creative advertising partnerships with brands. The latter could be a result of the improved safety mentioned earlier, increasing passenger numbers as the perception of public transport experience improves.

Transport professionals in the room agreed that the holistic network management offered by digitisation can also play a big part here. By driving operational efficiency and reducing the expensive knock-on effects of service disruption, networks can significantly reduce their OPEX, while simultaneously improving passenger experience, thereby making a far stronger case for investment in upgrades.

As shown in this blog, a broad range of topics were broached at the event. My thanks go to Andrew Haldenby and Reform for hosting this fantastic roundtable, I hope you found my summary as interesting as I did the event itself. Keep an eye on my blog as I’ll be exploring some of the issues mentioned here in more detail over the coming weeks and months.